Federal reviewers: Minn. 'Race to the Top' application illegible, missing information

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty holds up a piece of paper outlining Minnesota's scores on its rejected application for federal "Race to the Top" money. A new complaint about Minnesota's application comes in the form of a recent review of comments federal officials made, which calls into question the quality of the application itself.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Many reasons contributed to Minnesota's failure to win $330 million in federal education money, according to recent comments released by the U.S. Department of Education. They include a lack of support from teachers' unions and an inability to close the state's achievement gap.

But also within those reviews by federal officials on Minnesota's "Race to the Top" application are comments that call into question the quality of the application itself, prepared by New York-based consulting firm McKinsey and Company.

The state's failed application for the federal education funding has generated a lot of criticism and hand-wringing. It's also become a hot political issue involving Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state's teachers' union.

One federal reviewer pointed to the poor quality of a section of the application meant for listing test scores.

"This is not a reference to performance," the reviewer wrote. "Instead, the graphs range between hard and impossible to read."

Other reviewers noted that the state's application was missing some data that all states were required to submit.

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College, has read Minnesota's application and those of Tennessee and Delaware -- the two states that won Race to the Top money. He said Minnesota's didn't stack up.

Illegible graphic
This image shows the chart included on page 151 of the appendixes section of Minnesota's application for Race to the Top. It's believed this chart, along with at least two others, was referenced by one federal reviewer who commented: "The quality of the State's NAEP data is poor. This is not a reference to performance; instead, the graphs range between hard to impossible to read."
Image taken from Minnesota's application, as posted on the U.S. Department of Education Web site

"We really did not do a good job of being careful about making sure that information that had been requested as part of the proposal was in there," Nathan said. "It was rather stunning that we didn't, flat out, answer some of the basic questions, and that some of the charts and graphs apparently weren't readable."

No reviewer indicated in his or her comments that they took away points because of sloppy presentation or a lack of data.

State Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said the state should have received a better application for the money spent.

"Minnesota had an outside consultant to do our application, and still we had a sloppy application," Greiling said. "They said it was vague. It was kind of horrifying to see that we had people coming in and helping us with the application, and we did no better than that."

The state paid McKinsey and Company $500,000 to prepare Minnesota's application. Most of that money came from private sources.

"We had a sloppy application. They said it was vague. It was kind of horrifying...that we did no better than that."

Among the donors were the Gates Foundation, $250,000; the Bush Foundation, $50,000; and the Minneapolis Foundation, $100,000. The company also received taxpayer money. The state Department of Education chipped in $100,000 of federal stimulus funds.

A call to McKinsey's Minneapolis office was forwarded to the company's public relations office in New York. A spokesperson there referred MPR News to the Gates Foundation.

The criticism of the charts as unreadable was a surprise to the state Education Department. Officials say the charts looked fine on their computers. State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said earlier this week that she didn't think the application was sloppy.

"I think whatever our computer program that we sent probably was not able to be read, because when we went back and looked at our graphs they looked fine to us," Seagren said. "I think there was some mechanical issue there. We'll redo that."

An agency spokesman said mistakes such as unreadable charts are usually things that states can resubmit when applying for federal grants. But there was no opportunity to do so with Race to the Top, because the federal education department wanted to name its winners quickly.

The spokesman also noted that McKinsey prepared the applications of Louisiana and Pennsylvania, two of the 16 finalists for the money.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said an archaic education structure is the larger problem, said he won't re-apply for the money unless the Legislature makes several changes in state education law.

But even if the state applies, it will have to address another issue that the first application missed, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Charter Schools Association. Piccolo, who also read the state's failed application, said it failed to make a compelling case why Minnesota should get the money.

"Where's the story that we're telling? We're telling components but not telling a story," Piccolo said. "There doesn't seem to be a framework consistent through the whole thing."

State officials say they won't use any outside companies to help with a second application, if there is one. It comes down to dollars.

No private foundations have offered to help pay for a second application process, so the state agency will do that work on its own.

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